Bolton Wanderers young guns are now firing
SLOWLY but surely, Dougie Freedman feels he is getting to where he wants to be with Wanderers’ Under-21s.
Almost from the moment he stepped through the doors of the Reebok, the Scot targeted the club’s development squad as a pet project.
The lack of players making the leap from a blossoming Academy to senior level has been – and remains – a bone of contention with fans.
And Freedman has also come under fire during his time at the club for failing to offer first-team chances to youngsters, despite consistently stating his intention to do so.
But the manager now feels there are shoots of recovery below the surface of his first team, as evidenced by improving results, including a 5-2 victory at Tottenham earlier this week.
“I think they are coming along well,” he told The Bolton News. “I think the result and the performance against Spurs shows there is some development.
“The idea is that eventually these players can be pushing the first-team squad, and then taking over from them. And we’re getting much closer with that process but it definitely hasn’t been easy.
“When I first came to the club there were a lot of older players in that team and I didn’t feel we were really pushing them hard enough. There wasn’t that way of thinking.
“We have made changes, I think there has been some improvement but the process is ongoing.”
Freedman has bought the likes of Hayden White, Rob Hall, Cian Bolger, Yannick Bastos and Conor Wilkinson in from elsewhere and blooded them at development squad level – but the emergence of players such as Tom Youngs, Sanmi Odelusi, Chris Lester, Georg Iliev – who bagged a hat-trick against Spurs – shows the flow of talent from under-18s level is also in good health.
Wilkinson was loaned out to League Two Torquay United last week, making his debut in a 3-1 defeat at Chesterfield, while Odelusi joined MK Dons for a month yesterday, while Bolger moved to Southend.
And the space they have left gives the opportunity to Bulgarian striker Iliev to show he is capable of bridging the gap between the youth team and the second string.
“Georg had a couple of injuries at the start of the season and we sent him home for a few weeks,” he said of the youngster, who signed his first professional deal in January. “But he has come back strong, and you hope that with Conor now out getting some men’s football he can step in and continue scoring goals.
“That’s the plan. We give players a chance to go out and get some proper experience and then have the younger lads ready to come in and prove themselves.
“We’re starting to see a bit of a picture on that front. One or two lads are out on loan and the Under-21s are still getting good results, so I’m pleased.”
The clamour to see younger players in Freedman’s first team has reached fever pitch of late, particularly given poor results.
White impressed in his one opportunity at right-back, while Josh Vela and Rob Hall have also been on the fringes of the senior picture.
Freedman accepts he will never fully convince fans of his desire to blood younger players until they can see tangible evidence on the pitch.
But in the short term he feels the only way of grinding out points in the Championship is to stick with his senior stars.
“It’s a slow process and people want it to happen quickly, I know that,” he said.
“But right now I think it is difficult to just throw them in because of where we sit in the table. It isn’t how I want them to develop.
“Eventually, I am confident things are geared up to giving them that shot.
“And in the back of my mind I have got players like Tom Eaves, Marvin Sordell and Conor Wilkinson out there getting games and we’re seeing how many they score, how they are doing.
“It’s okay scoring goals in the Under-21s but you do need to prove yourself out there and eventually players like Illiev will get their chance to do that.
“It isn’t a case of clicking your fingers but it’s the way I believe it should be done.”